President Obama went to a Joint Session of Congress Wednesday night and a town meeting broke out.
At least for a moment.
Democratic lawmakers endured five weeks of rambunctious town hall meetings in August and early September. At these gatherings, boisterous critics of Mr. Obama’s health care reform effort heaved invective at Democrats for daring to support the president’s plan.
And then the president got a taste of what lawmakers confronted at their listening sessions.
Wednesday night’s forum was not held in a junior high auditorium. At a community center. At the rotary club. This was a Joint Session of Congress. It’s where the House and Senate convene in the House chamber to hear the President of the United States. The Supreme Court is also present to complete the trinity. In short, a Joint Session of Congress is the most-holy convocation of American government. It’s reserved only for State of the Union speeches or when the president addresses Congress after an event of dire national importance such as September 11th. Lawmakers from both parties come in reverence for the institutions they serve.
President Obama spoke from the dais in the House of Representatives. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presided over his left shoulder. Vice President Biden sat over his right shoulder.
“There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. That is false” Mr. Obama intoned.
The din grew in the chamber as Republicans began grumbling. Pelosi glanced to the GOP side of the chamber and then turned to whisper something to the vice president.
President Obama was resolute. And continued.
“The reforms…The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” the president said. Then paused.
President Obama’s breather lasted just a moment. But from Mr. Obama’s left, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) filled the millisecond of dead air with a shout from the rear of the chamber.
“You lie!” charged Wilson. He jabbed his index finger at the president.
This was the type of gibe and opprobrium that opponents leveled at Democratic lawmakers at town halls throughout August.
“Whoa!!!” thundered a chorus of Democrats, galled at Wilson's thrust.
President Obama paused again. He shot a steely glance toward the source of the catcall. Pelosi’s jaw dropped open and hung agape for several seconds in disbelief. The vice president shook his head.
“It’s not true,” Mr. Obama calmly said as voices rose in the chamber.
Pelosi was visibly shaken. She fiddled with her notes in front and whispered again to Biden.
After a month of political turbulence, perhaps it was inevitable that a lawmaker would pierce the stately decorum of a Joint Session of Congress with a jeer at the President of the United States. This, a day after House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) announced that “Republicans will welcome the President of the United States respectfully and respond in an appropriate way and at an appropriate time.”
After the speech, Pelosi told FOX she didn’t know who did the heckling. But she added that she didn’t think the offender should be sanctioned for broaching the dignity of a Joint Session of Congress.
But House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) came out swinging at his Palmetto State colleague.
“I thought that Governor Sanford had taken us to as low as we could go until tonight,” said Clyburn, referring to South Carolina’s embattled governor. “That was probably one of the most-insulting things I’ve ever seen.”
“I thought what Joe Wilson said went beyond heckling,” Clyburn said. “To heckle is bad enough. But to use that word. The one three-letter word that was not allowed in my house when I was growing up was beyond the pale.”
Republicans took Wilson to task as well.
“Anybody who would cat-call the President of the United States addressing this body is very, very inappropriate and he will hear from a lot of us about that,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) on FOX News Radio.
But while not condoning Wilson’s interjection, some Republicans pointed out that Democrats have also used Clyburn’s three-letter word.
“And yet (Pelosi) can say the CIA lied?” asked Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), a reference to the speaker’s claim that the intelligence service wasn’t straight with her. “Half of this room said President Bush lied.”
Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) said disavowed hollering at the president. But he noted that at other speeches, he “heard Democrat members yet out ‘liar’ as well.”
And it’s important to note that Wilson’s incrimination came right after President Obama denounced some Republicans for suggesting his health care measure includes “death panels” that would kill senior citizens.
“Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple,” the president said.
For his part, Wilson was remorseful. The Congressman was nowhere to be found after the speech. But a few hours later, Wilson’s office published the following statement from the South Carolina Republican:
“This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.”
A while later, Wilson’s office indicated that the Congressman phoned White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel “to personally apologize to President Obama.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), one of Pelosi’s lieutenants, was prepared to shrug off the incident.
“We don’t want to distract,” Van Hollen said. “The issue here is health care reform for the American people. Not Joe Wilson.”
It’s unclear if lawmakers will move to punish Wilson. The most-common forms of discipline in the House are expulsion, censure and reprimand. For instance, Republicans last year tried to censure House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) for not paying taxes and other alleged transgressions. In 2007, they also attempted to censure Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) after he claimed President Bush sent children to Iraq “to get their heads blown off for (his) amusement.”
The full House must vote to reprimand or censure a Member. In those cases, the offending Member stands in the well of the House chamber to receive a verbal rebuke.
After Mr. Obama’s speech, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) delivered the official GOP address. Boustany spoke in measured tones about “common-sense reforms” and concerns about “government bureaucracy.” But after a month of tumultuous town hall meetings, many on Capitol Hill wondered if it was Joe Wilson who gave the true Republican response.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- FOX News Radio’s Mike Majchrowitz contributed to this report.